John D’Arcy May.

Theology in the face of pluralism & injustice

A Public forum of Social Policy Connections and the Centre for Religion & Social Policy (RASP) of the University of Divinity Melbourne, held at Yarra Theological Union 17 September 2019.

The Asia-Pacific is not only a geopolitical and multicultural area, but an interreligious context. All the world’s major religions originated in Asia; the Pacific rim embraces virtually every known type of indigenous tradition. Modern means of travel and communication put these religions in contact as never before. The resulting interreligious relationships exemplify all that is good and bad about ‘religion’: admirable attempts at reconciliation and peace-building on the one hand, the fomenting of ethno-nationalist conflicts on the other. These developments have global implications – including theological implications.

At the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the two Declarations that were most bitterly contested till the end of the very last session were Dignitatis Humanae on tolerance and human rights and Nostra Aetatae on the Church’s relations with other religions. This controversy is symptomatic for theological resistance to pluralism. Both documents were unprecedented and struck at the heart of theological absolutism and meliorism, though their full implications have still not been recognised. Read together, they suggest that international relations between open, democratic societies and interreligious relations between ecumenically-minded faith communities are intimately connected.

Though it was not articulated at the time, the context for both these emerging themes was what we now call civil society. Civility is indeed the indispensable basis for democracy, and the prospect of real democracy is what troubled both the Catholic Church in the centuries after the Reformation, and the authoritarian political regimes of recent centuries. Civil society is a space of freedom which mediates between the private and the public spheres, between the family and the state. In recent decades it has become increasingly threatened, not only under autocratic rulers who have never known true democracy, but in the established democracies of the West.

For better or for worse, this is the context in which all the world’s religions now participate. Some political scientists have proposed that a global civil society is taking shape, in which groups and movements who were previously ignorant of or indifferent to one another’s existence now communicate, either to compete with one another for influence or to co-operate with one another in contributing to human and ecological wellbeing. I should now like to explore, referring very briefly to examples from the Asia-Pacific region, ways in which the religions are engaged in processes of mutual transformation, doing theology not against but with one another in order to make theology global, globalisation ethical and civil society humane.


In his history of democracy John Keane identifies three forms that democracy has taken in its long development. We associate assembly democracy with the acropolis in Athens, where citizens (who were male property owners) voted on candidates for office and important decisions such as going to war. There are much earlier examples of such proto-democracies around the Aegean and indeed the Mediterranean world, but they did not survive the Roman conquests and the transition from republic to empire. The Buddha is said to have been the son of one of the rulers of a clan-based ‘republic’ with collective and accountable leadership, an experience which is reflected in his later teaching on social justice. The Islamic Caliphate was anything but democratic, but it was Muslim thinkers who used terms equivalent to ‘civil society’ and ‘democracy’ and insisted that those in power be accountable, thereby keeping the idea of democracy alive.

The next phase, which only emerged centuries later, Keane calls representative democracy, and he points out that the church had an important role in establishing it. The Council of Constance (1414), faced with three pretenders to the papal throne, took upon itself the role of electing a new pope, thereby implicitly placing the council’s authority over that of the pope. The party that urged this solution became known as conciliarists, and they came close to establishing a precedent for the future governance of the church.

In this they were thwarted, but the principle of representation remained: delegates chosen by their dioceses – later, constituencies – re-present their communities in the decision-making bodies of councils and eventually parliaments. At the Reformation, more democratic forms of church governance developed, such as Presbyterianism.

In the contemporary world of mass communication and citizen activism, finally, Keane suggests that we are seeing the rise of monitory democracy, in which civil society scrutinises the state and its institutions, calling out corruption and contributing to policy formation. But civil society in this sense is increasingly fragile and threatened in a world where autocratic demagogues are seizing power in ‘illiberal democracies’ such as Turkey, Hungary and even India.   The present struggle in Hong Kong is perhaps the most dramatic example of both the power and vulnerability of civil society.

Authoritarian rulers such as Putin, Xi Jinping and Assad are terrified of granting the people real freedom; for them democracy is a form of lunacy which no leader who wants to remain in power could contemplate. In this they are at one with Plato, Kant and the Founding Fathers of the United States, for whom democracy was a form of mob rule: the republic was the only stable form of government. Democracy, in the eyes of many rulers in the so-called Third World, is Western ‘secularliberaldemocracy’ and therefore alien to their cultures.

The West, which arose out of the fusion of Greek and Hebrew traditions in the uneasy religious and political synthesis of Medieval Christendom, is the object of both envy and fear by traditional societies outside Europe because it purports to transcend religious and ethnic allegiances in the name of science and secularism. Although it may well be true that in the age of colonialism the secular ‘civic space’ of Western political structures was arbitrarily imposed on the ‘sacral spaces’ of traditional societies, it does not follow that a putative global civil society would be simply the extension of Western political structures to the rest of the world.

This is the point at which the world’s religions, even where they are instrumentalised to become the ideologies of authoritarian regimes such as Sunni Saudi Arabia or Shi’ite Iran, not to mention the perversities of Islamic State and the Taliban, are seen to be inescapably involved in the dynamic of global civil society. In this new space which they all inhabit, the religions are confronted with one another in ways never experienced in their countries of origin. They can be compared and critiqued at arm’s length, competing with one another – and with secular science – for influence. But whereas traditionally each of them defined a complete coherent ‘world’ of meaning, now no one of them defines the whole of reality. They are relativised simply by inhabiting the global public sphere with its ubiquitous electronic media. This applies, of course, to Christianity as much as to any other tradition. They are each in search of their function in this new and somewhat daunting situation of unrestricted pluralism.

As has been well said, religion has become deregulated and deprivatised. Tolerance of others, such as the Catholic Church learned in Dignitatis Humanae and Nostra Aetate, is a necessary first step, but it is not enough to cope with the challenges of pluralism. For that a new type of theology is needed. But before we come to this I should like to survey, however briefly, the role of the religions in our Asia-Pacific context.


The first thing to say about the indigenous traditions of our region is that they were only reluctantly acknowledged to be religious at all. Anthropologists of Aboriginal Australia such as Strehlow, Elkin and Stanner were among a minority who discerned a profound spirituality in the stories and customs emanating from the Dreaming; theologians such as Martin Wilson, Frank Fletcher and Eugene Stockton sought to correlate these with Christian faith. The significance of the Mabo, Wik and Timber Creek decisions, despite attempts to water them down, is that the religious heritage of Aboriginal peoples was recognised in British law, thereby nullifying the misguided doctrine of terra nullius which justified so much outrageous treatment, culminating in the stolen generations and deaths in custody. For many Christians, the encounter with Aboriginal spirituality has enriched their sense of the land as the source of life, issuing in renewed commitment to ecological justice and a new appreciation of the doctrine of creation.

Similarly, understanding the religious dimension of Pacific Islanders’ celebrations of life and community took many decades, as missiologists such as Ennio Mantovani and Theodor Ahrens have documented. These types of ‘primal’ religion are the indispensable matrix of all the so-called ‘universal’ religions, without which these could not take root in so many different cultural contexts. Or, using terms coined by Mantovani and the Singhalese Jesuit Aloysius Pieris: without the ‘biocosmic’ religion which celebrates life and fertility, the ‘metacosmic’ religions of transcendence could not articulate themselves in ways that human beings can relate to.

Buddhism, as prominent Western Buddhists have not failed to point out, has become something of a fad in the West, succumbing to the apolitical individualism and narcissism of seekers after self-fulfilment, whereas in its origins it contained not only rigorous spiritual practices but strong teachings on social and economic justice. These have been rediscovered and reformulated for today by Buddhist thinkers and activists such as Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Sulak Sivaraksa in Asia and Ken Jones and David Loy in the West.

The Buddhist analysis of human passions and delusions becomes a powerful diagnostic tool with which to unmask the deceptions of consumerism and political propaganda, and the ancient principle of ahimsa (non-violence) underpins criticism of the ways politics legitimises war and coercion. Yet Buddhist societies have been complicit in justifying some of the most egregious violence of our times, from refusing to condemn the ruthless warmongering of imperial Japan to support for ethnic religious nationalism in Sri Lanka. The persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar, simply because they are Muslims, by an army egged on by nationalistic Buddhist monks, is a lamentable failure to abide by the non-violence intrinsic to Buddhist teaching.

Christians, though they are persecuted minorities in many Asian countries, have had an enormous impact on Pacific Island nations. Though they laboured under the delusion that Aboriginal, Melanesian and Polynesian cultures were inferior and evil, the missionaries eventually learned to accept aspects of them into Christian belief and practice, and today the lively indigenous churches of the Pacific Islands are an integral part of people’s lives. These churches, however, have a long history of fighting among themselves, and in many cases they remain exclusivist in their theology and absolutist in their moral teachings, as the unfortunate case of Israel Folau has recently demonstrated.

Johann Baptist Metz has asserted that at the core of the Christian program for the age of globalisation is compassion, but Christian leaders who have tried to take this seriously when confronted with ecological destruction and unregulated immigration are few and far between. The German chancellor Angela Merkel, who famously declared wir schaffen das (we can do this) in the face the flood of refugees in 2015, has been punished politically ever since, losing voters to the far right Alternative für Deutschland. But she did not hesitate to remind her own party that it has the word ‘Christian’ in its title. The great refusal of Australia to deal compassionately with refugees is drawing alongside the great Australian silence (Stanner) on the plight of Aborigines as one of the darkest chapters in our history. In the early centuries Christianity, too, had a tradition of pacifism which has largely been lost.

It is the tragedy of Islam in our time that its struggles to come to terms with modernity, something only Muslims can achieve, have been overwhelmed by the spread of radical exclusivist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaida and Islamic State, covertly aided and abetted by sympathisers in Islamic governments such as those of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Yet Islamic extremism has claimed far more attention than it deserves, possibly because since 9/11 it is seen as an irritant and a threat in the West.

In Indonesia, the biggest Islamic country in the world, a fascinating tug of war is taking place between radical elements inspired by Wahhabi legal doctrines introduced from Saudi Arabia and the liberal interpretations of pluralism which have long been traditional in both popular culture and legal philosophy. From the very beginning of the Republic, when the Islamists’ attempts to include Shari’a law in an annex to the constitution were thwarted by Sukarno, radical Islamic parties have never been able to take control of Indonesian politics. Rather, the huge popular movements Nadhlatul Ulama and Muhammadiya have preserved the social capital that brought about the fall of the dictator Suharto, albeit after two decades of authoritarian rule.

The point of mentioning these examples of religious actors in the public sphere of civil society is to suggest the roles their traditions might play in the much vaster and more complex scenario of global civil society. This is becoming the matrix in which all the religions now subsist, transcending their particularities just as their teachings transcend the economic doctrines of neoliberal capitalism, the narrow mentality of scientism and the amorality of so much political practice. It may seem incongruous and would be ridiculed in public discourse, but it has long been my conviction that at the root of the problems caused by the religions with their exclusivist doctrines and constant quarrelling lie theological problems which only they can solve. It is also my contention that they can address these problems together, collaboratively. To this proposal we must now give consideration.


In recent times, a fresh approach to religious pluralism has arisen, inspired by the superb scholarship of Francis Clooney, which has come to be called ‘comparative theology’. The term is not new; it was used as long ago as 1700 and can be seen to apply retrospectively to the work many of us have been doing for years. Restricting itself to the careful and respectful reading of texts from different traditions, comparative theology largely eschews theorising about their truth or otherwise, preferring to allow these analyses to stand by themselves and amass a rich storehouse of interpretation. Pluralist theologians such as Paul Knitter, however, have remarked that, though there might be a lot of comparison going on, there is not much theology.

The difficult questions of truth and method involved in, say, Christians coming to terms with the radically different doctrines of Buddhism, polytheistic Hindus confronting the stark monotheism of Islam, or Westerners trying to cope with the elusive nature mysticism of Daoism or Shinto, tend to be left to one side. The comparativists’ respect for the integrity of poetic texts is admirable, but, as Knitter and others have insisted, the need to transpose their teachings into guidelines for medical, ecological and political ethics is too urgent to be ignored.

A somewhat different perspective, incorporating both the fruits of comparison and the theoretical framework of pluralism, might be called ‘collaborative theology’. This would envisage not just the imagined correlation of doctrines and rituals but the real engagement of thinkers from different traditions in the task of finding solutions to the moral, political and spiritual problems which confront real believers. The methodological implications of such an enterprise are of course immense. But there are already examples of successful collaboration in the area of Buddhist-Christian theology, which in my view presents the most profound spiritual and intellectual challenge of all, both in Asia (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Aloysius Pieris, Lynn de Silva, Abe Masao) and the West (Perry Schmidt-Leukel, Paul Knitter, John Cobb).

If comparison is the first step in understanding anything new and unfamiliar, communication with the other in order to verify one’s new knowledge is the next. Thus communication mediates between the somewhat abstract knowledge-at-a-distance gained by comparison and its conversion into praxis by collaboration. Though such interactions can sometimes go as far as dual religious belonging, where one or more participants declare allegiance to two traditions simultaneously, they need not result in either syncretism or relativism, the two bugbears of the guardians of orthodoxy. Nor do they imply that in the end all religions are ‘the same’. But they do go beyond mere tolerance, i.e. keeping one’s others at a polite distance so as not to be unduly influenced by them. What I envisage could be described as an ‘interactive pluralism’, respectful of the autonomy of distinct identities yet striving to engage with them in pursuit of both spiritual and ethical goals which transcend both sides’ particularities. This, of course, is much easier said than done.

The Greek word oikos means ‘house’, but more than that it embraces the whole household in all its aspects, not unlike the German word Heim, from which Heimat, the word for ‘home’ in its deepest sense is derived. Oikos is a component in three fundamental areas which encompass all the dimensions of the interreligious collaboration envisaged here:

  • Economy, the household of economics, finance and trade.
  • Ecology, the household of climate and the natural world.
  • Ecumenism, the household of ethical values and the religions.

It is rare indeed for these three dimensions to be viewed together as an integrated whole. They amount to what international relations theorists call ‘cosmopolitanism’, which in turn presupposes the existence of global civil society and transcends the traditional conception of sovereign states. Such a vision can be threatening to those, whether Western or Asian, who value rootedness in familiar surroundings in the company of like-minded fellow citizens who speak the same language. It is this feeling of being invaded by the alien other, of being expected to come to terms with other cultures, live in other countries and participate in transnational institutions, that is a root cause of Brexit and the election of ignorant demagogues like Trump. If the religions acquiesce in such particularism they risk negating everything their traditions stand for. On the other hand, if they demonstrate in their own relations with one another a willingness to overcome humanly constructed differences by :

  • Acknowledging the Other
  • Welcoming the Stranger
  • Reconciling the Enemy

They make their message of peace, liberation and human and ecological wellbeing all the more credible.

The biblical word oikoumene originally meant ‘the whole inhabited earth’, in effect the Roman world of Hellenistic culture. Its relevance for today is that it incorporates in a synthesis the three dimensions of the ecumenical mentioned above. This is why an understanding of the emerging global civil society is indispensable if we are to move beyond interreligious dialogue as the comparison or correlation of abstract doctrines to the religions as lived; to their rituals, their ethics and their mores, as they participate in the dynamic of complex pluralist societies in a global context.

Out of this shared experience there may emerge the kind of theology that will enable people of faith (and possibly those who proclaim with the fervour of believers that they have no faith!) to collaborate on the deeper spiritual task of awakening a sense of wonder and a yearning for peace capable of overcoming the institutionalised greed, violence and delusion (the Buddhist diagnosis of human ills) that fuel conflict and dissension the world over.

The religions may well prove indispensable to the formulation of an ethic of survival such as the ‘world ethos’ envisaged by Hans Küng, but over and above that they can offer a divided world a vision of hope which relativises both their own fundamentalisms and particularisms and the narrow ideologies of power which political leaders seek to justify. It may seem impossibly difficult, but the conclusion is inescapable: unless we learn, individually and collectively, to live with people of alien cultures and religions the prognosis for peace and the survival of our planet is grim.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email